When they make the movie about the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that grounded off the coast of Tuscany, there won’t be romantic tales about its captain. Italian authorities immediately arrested him on suspicions of manslaughter and abandoning ship prematurely. He might have been the skipper of the ill-fated vessel in all senses of the word.
A century ago this spring, as the Titanic entered its death throes and all its lifeboats had been launched, Capt. Edward Smith told his crew: “Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Now it’s every man for himself.” One witness recalled seeing him, probably washed overboard, clutching a child in the water as the Titanic disappeared. A member of the crew always believed it was Capt. Smith’s voice he heard from the water after the Titanic was gone, urging him and others on: “Good boys! Good lads!”
“Every man for himself” is a phrase associated with the deadly Costa Concordia disaster, but not as a last-minute expedient. It appears to have been the natural order of things. In the words of one newspaper account, “An Australian mother and her young daughter have described being pushed aside by hysterical men as they tried to board lifeboats.” If the men of the Titanic had lived to read such a thing, they would have recoiled in shame. The Titanic’s crew surely would have thought the hysterics deserved to be shot on sight — and would have volunteered to perform the service.
Women and children were given priority in theory, but not necessarily in practice. The Australian mother said of the scene, “We just couldn’t believe it — especially the men, they were worse than the women.” Another woman passenger agreed, “There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats.” Yet another, a grandmother, complained, “I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls.”
Guys aboard the Costa Concordia apparently made sure the age of chivalry was good and dead by pushing it over and trampling on it in their heedless rush for the exits. The grounded cruise ship has its heroes, of course, just as the Titanic had its cowards. But the discipline of the Titanic’s crew and the self-enforced chivalric ethic that prevailed among its men largely trumped the natural urge toward panicked self-preservation.
Women and children went first, and once the urgency of the situation became clear, breaches weren’t tolerated. The crew fired warning shots to keep men from rushing the lifeboats. In an instance Daniel Allen Butler recounts in his book, “Unsinkable,” a male passenger trying to make it on one lifeboat was rebuffed and then beaten for his offense.
The survivor statistics tell the tale. More women from third class — deep in the bowels of the ship, where it was hard to escape and instructions were vague or nonexistent — survived than men from first class. Almost all of the women from first class (97 percent) and second class (84 percent) made it. As Butler notes, the men from first class who were lost stayed behind voluntarily, true to their Edwardian ideals.
They can look faintly ridiculous from our vantage point. Benjamin Guggenheim changed into his evening clothes that night: “We’ve dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” Who would you rather have around your wife or daughter, though, when there is only one slot left on the lifeboat? Old Guggenheim in his white tie and tails, or the contemporary slob in his Bermuda shorts and flip-flops?
The Titanic went down, they say, to the strains of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the band courageously played on. It lent a final grace note to the tragedy. Today, we don’t do grace notes. We’ve gone from “Women and children, first,” to “Dude, where’s my lifeboat?” As the women of the Costa Concordia can testify, that’s a long way down.
— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.